Monday, April 22, 2013

Annotations & the Student Brain

Every year my eighth graders read Robert Cormier's superbly-crafted mystery I am the Cheese. And while my students overwhelmingly enjoy the book, I am always surprised by how much they miss when we read as a whole class, and I have grappled with how to get them to notice the tiny details, admire the author's craft, and reflect on the clues that keep appearing without beating the love of reading out of them.

So this year I tried incorporating annotation within the instruction. I was a bit concerned with the idea--I do not like practices that interrupt or interfere with fluency, comprehension, and pleasure. I also know that annotating books is a high school expectation, and while I wanted my students to have some practice, I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to expect eighth graders to take this on. But I am a firm believer in the saying, "You never know if it will work until you try it."

I first gave my students a handout describing what annotations are. "Making notes about your book allow you to remember the important things, find patterns, analyze characters, and bring important observations to our conversations," I told them. They nodded and actually showed a bit of interest. So far, I had not completely repelled them. "Today, let's just practice with what you read last night. I'm not going to give you further direction--I want to see what you do with these guidelines on your own. Here's some really big paper." (Note: big paper makes any activity fun for 14 year olds.)

What happened next was nothing that I expected.  My students dumped their brains onto their papers--and not one of them looked the same:

Their annotations ranged from lists to outlines to scatter plots. Columns, cartoons, and flowcharts filled the pages. Yet, as I sat and met with students individually and asked them to tell me what was happening on their papers, they were all able to articulate the same thing: I am looking at how he describes characters. I am finding patterns. I am writing down any questions I have and drawing connections. I am noticing what the author is doing when he gives hints.

What happened second was even better. Every night students annotated their reading, and when they came to class, conversation naturally occurred. They sat in groups of 3-4, and without any guidance from me, broke out into dialogue. They asked questions, they supported their findings with examples from the text, and they made predictions. They pointed out places where Cormier uses figurative language and the effect it has on the storyline. They recalled parts of the text where something suspicious loomed. They recognized patterns in power struggles and symbolism.  They listened to one another and then added to their annotations based on their peers' contributions. And they didn't need me to do anything  but support, inquire, and stand in awe of their brains.

Because when it comes down to it, it's all about their magnificent brains. When we, as teachers, allow for creativity and flexibility--when we allow them to approach tasks in authentic, individualistic approaches, then we get to the heart of the matter. I think some of us avoid tasks like "annotations" because we don't want to provide scripted, uncreative lessons, and others of us avoid creativity because we want specific results. Really though, there is a balance. We can expect rigorous thinking & encourage students to delve deeper while not sacrificing creativity.

In the end, I was reminded that at the heart of good instruction are activities that meet our goals by respecting each student's individual expression. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

What's In a Grade?

I've been thinking a lot about grades the past couple of years--what they mean, what they are for, why we give them, and what they represent. And throughout this process of self-reflection, I have begun moving my classroom to a competency-based model. These are the issues I've struggled with most:

Taking points off for late work
It's a common practice for teachers to take 10 points off a day for late work. I hate late work. I am an English teacher and handling piles of paper is both a science and the bane of my existence. Late work interferes with everything and is one of my biggest pet peeves. I understand that urge to dock students for tardy work--and have even done it myself to "make a point."

But five years ago I had an 8th grade student who was a brilliant writer. His craft with language, form, and voice was impeccable. Yet, he was a terrible student. Everything was late--by at least 3 days, which meant, when I took 10 points off for every day his work was late, he had a C in my class.  But as he prepared for high school, the question as to whether he should be in an Honors class or not arose. I, of course, thought he was more than capable. But his report card said otherwise and the high school questioned the placement. This is when I started to wrestle with the idea of taking points off. This student had clearly mastered the material. He was an A learner; a C student.

We need to differentiate between learning and work habits.

Instead of taking points off, I have taken the advice of Rick Wormeli and have students call home during class when they show up without their work. Ultimately, it proves to be a much more effective technique than taking points off.

Taking points off for no names
No-name papers are an annoyance, as well. I have a portion of my ancient chalkboard called No Name Land where I hang un-named work, and I am amazed that papers will sit there for an entire trimester, unclaimed.  Even after the kids who have zeroes are told to go look at their work, they insist that absolutely nobody did it. It is a phenomenon that I simply cannot wrap my head around.

The other day my son came home with a paper of nautical terms that he had to know while he read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. He had every single term correctly labeled and spelled--he knew 100% of the material. Yet, the fifth grade boy that he is, he had not written his name on the paper. Now his grade is a 90%. So does that mean he only knows 90% of the material?

Again. We need to differentiate between learning and work habits.

Averaging grades
If my grades represent what a student knows, and my job is to help move a student to mastery of my subject, then I have to allow re-dos. Many teachers believe this, but many teachers average the grades together--and some will not allow students to get more than a 75% on the final average.

But if I have a student who is really wrestling with linking verbs, and he is working hard at mastering them, then when he finally does, shouldn't he get full credit for being a master? If you miss a shot in a basketball game, you still get full points for the ones you make after--you don't only earn 75% of them.

If a student shows she knows 100% of the material, she receives a 100%, no matter how many times it takes her.

Weighing homework heavily
Recently I was looking at a classroom's grading policy on its website. Homework was worth 25% of the overall class grade, while tests were worth 35%.

To go back to the sports analogy, the homework is the practice, the test is the game. You have to be accountable to show up for every practice, but if you don't, chances are, it will reflect on the game. During practice you should be able to take risks, try new things, make mistakes, and learn what works for you. This is what homework should be for students. It should be meaningful practice that moves them towards the success of the final, summative assessment, aka "the game." When we give too heavy a weight to this practice, we skew our final grades--they no longer measure what students know; they measure what students do.

I now weigh homework as 5%, classwork as 5%, test grades (& major pieces of writing) as 60%, and quizzes (or on-demand pieces of writing) as 30%.

In the end...
If I were in charge, I would not give letter grades at all because I want my students to come to class to learn and not to get grades, and I don't think the grades ever fully represent what a student knows (can I really defend the difference between an 89% and 90% on a piece of writing?). But the reality is that I cannot change that larger system today, and for the time being, I must enter weekly grades on a traditional 0-100 point-based computer system. And while I further wish that I could move to standards-based grading, the other reality is that the rest of my school is not ready to take on that philosophical conversation. So that has left me in the confines that many teachers find themselves--having to follow school policies while also ensuring that their practice stays true to their philosophy.

Homework should be completed. Work should be turned in on time. Names should be on papers. It isn't about making things easier for students or making excuses for them. Somewhere on a report card (we have an effort grade on ours), students should be held accountable for their scholarly habits--these skills are important to teach as well.

But in the end, I truly believe that we need to keep two beliefs in mind every time we sit down to design our classroom policies:

1. Using grades to punish student habits does not create accurate data. 
2. If we must give grades, they must represent what students KNOW, not what they DO.

What do you think about your grading policies and the confines you must work in? Has your district adopted a standards-based or competency based grading system? Do you work for a school that does not give grades? What struggles do you have with grading?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gaming Grammar--What I've Learned

Last year I decided to jump, both feet, into the flipped--game-theory-classroom with my 8th grade during their grammar unit. I spent hours at school, recording all of the videos, putting together all the resources, and then trying to stay one step ahead of my accelerated learners who devoured and mastered everything I set in front of them. I was nervous about the whole thing--I have books upon books that tell me I shouldn't teach grammar in isolation, yet I had years and years of students not learning in context. I had friends who had mastered the flipped classroom and others who were asking me how to do it. In the end, I felt like the most frazzled, incompetent, overworked teacher ever, and I wasn't so sure it was worth it.

But when my students sat down to take that final, end-of-the-year grammar test, 95% of them passed  with an 80% or above--something I never thought I would live to see. And even better, for the remainder of the year, I heard them using grammatical terms when working with their writing and revisions. And finally, this year's high school teachers report that most of my students are retaining  and applying the information still.

So it couldn't have been the flop that I had thought it was, when I stood in the classroom, quickly grading quizzes, punching numbers into a calculator, not answering every question, forgetting which students needed help, juggling mountains of paperwork, feeling completely overwhelmed, but too far in to admit defeat.

This year, instead of scrapping the unit because it was difficult and I had made many many mistakes, I hesitantly decided to tweak it a bit. Currently, we're three weeks in, and I am hearing comments like, "I LOVE what we are doing in your class right now!" When I hear them say this, I want to take them squarely by the shoulders, look them in the eye, and say, "You DO know that we are studying grammar, right?" I mean, I've never heard a collective group of kids equate pronoun agreement with fun. But really, we are having fun. And while I'm still making mistakes, they are not quite as grievous as last year's. I feel more in touch with students and have found ways to manage the workload a bit better.

So...for those of you playing with the idea of flipped classrooms and game theory? Here are the mistakes I made. Try to avoid them, if you can:

  • I didn't check in w/ students at the beginning of class to make sure they had notes taken, so many kids wouldn't watch the videos & use class time to do this. That meant I didn't have time to work with them or get a feeling for where they were.
  • I did all of their assessments on paper, and they weren't allowed to move on to the next level w/o an 80 or above, so I spent most of class time grading papers and not working with students.
  • I had a graph paper spreadsheet for grades & points, so when I wasn't grading, I was adding up tallies to give to the students.
  • In my state of being overwhelmed, I didn't give many formative assessments, so I never knew who was struggling until they had taken the quiz and failed.

This year, things are different. The classroom is calmer, and I am connected with every student. What are we doing different?

  • Students are required to take notes by a given day--these notes are checked & counted as a grade or points (and a quick aside: when doing game-theory, points are much more important to the students than grades!). Videos are only watched in class if they need reinforcement or are moving ahead.
  • All assessments are hosted on Edmodo. They receive their grade right away, and if they didn't do well, sit with me. I can spend my time breaking it down for them, recognizing where they need further help, rather than just spitting out numbers.
  • On Edmodo, the points are automatically tallied--no calculator for me!
  • Every class period starts with a quick, formative assessment. Based on how they did, I am able to group and regroup students for more practice, further instruction, or studying. On any given day, some students are working with me, others are practicing with a friend who has already mastered the material, some are playing a computer game for practice, some are sitting with an old-style grammar book, and others are moving on to the next topic. I know who struggles, who is stuck, who needs a quick reminder, and who is marching on at full speed. 

As with anything, all or nothing generally doesn't work (I would like to say I have moved from flipped-classroom to blended-classroom), and when we do things for the first time, we are likely to fail.  As teachers, we want our students to understand the benefits of learning from failure, but we are too afraid to model that risk-taking ourselves. Yet, anybody who is contemplating playing with a flipped- or blended-classroom model (and I highly recommend it!) or integrating game theory into his or her classroom must be prepared for imperfection. But if you are willing to learn alongside your students, change your pace midstream, and admit your downfalls, you might be surprised at what blooms within your classroom walls.

Friday, February 8, 2013

It's a Showdown.

It's a Tuesday morning. Eighth graders file in with typed papers without their names on them and hand them to me. Excitement hums in the air. I shuffle the papers and number them 1-16. "Are you ready?" I ask them. They stand with clipboards and excitement, and nod at me.

Today is their Nonfiction Showdown. We've been working on implementing narrative elements into their expository writing for over a week, and they are ready to prove that they can write nonfiction that sings off the page as well as Marc Aronson or Jim Murphy.

The 16 pieces of anonymous writing are spread around the classroom on separate desks. Students stop at each piece, analyzing it, re-looking at the criteria they agreed upon as a whole, and then scratching out all the positive things they can say about it on their paper. They spend the entire period in utter silence, reading. The only murmurs I hear are whispers like, "Have you read this one? It's SO good." Once in a while I stop and exclaim, "Oh my goodness, you guys. These are too good. We're never going to find a winner!" In the end, the students turn in their notes, highlighting the number that they think was the best one--the one that should represent their class. I sort through the papers and choose the four that receive the top scores.

Later in the week, we combine the papers with the other section of 8th grade's papers, and we do a finalist showdown. The same process is worked through, but this time they know they are choosing a final winner. And the Nonfiction Showdown Winner receives 4 things: 1. A pass to not have to write a book review for a month of their choice. 2. A bag of Swedish fish.  3. A crown. and 4. A bulletin board that showcases their (and all the finalists') work.  This is a serious job.

Sometimes when I think a piece was overlooked, I add it to the finalist pile. Sometimes when the tallies are too close, we pull two pieces together and everybody revotes on just those two. The only steadfast rule is that only positive comments can be made.

And so...what are the results of this?

Every time we do a showdown in our classroom, I am handed such astounding work that I want to run into the hallway and read it aloud to every passerby. Suddenly, knowing it will be evaluated by their peers, students pour themselves into the process and deliver exquisitely stunning writing. I have the experience of walking through and reading and commenting on each piece so that when I sit down to grade them, it takes less time. Students have the experience of reading real samples of writing and become more cognitive about what elements are used in high quality prose. When faced with two excellent pieces, I watch them independently start breaking it down into word choice, sentence structure, voice, ideas, and organization. And finally, each and every time we do this, somebody unexpected rises to the top. Students are stunned when they hear the names. New luminaries get patted on the back while they blush. I have students stay after and say, "Wow. I didn't know So&So was such a good writer!"

Too many times we avoid competition in the classroom--we worry feelings will be hurt if not everything is "fair." But kids love to compete--it's why they love gym class and spirit week. And while life is not always fair, it is important for kids to know that when we work hard, we all have a fair chance. And when we don't encourage and model healthy competition, we don't teach our students how to celebrate the successes of others. I want my students to be the kind of people who openly congratulate a classmate for doing quality work and not focus on their jealousy.

Next week, the 7th grade has challenged the 8th grade to a Sonnet Showdown, and we have extended the challenge to another school in our district. The excitement is building, and I am convinced that my students' drafts could already rival Shakespeare himself.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Why You Should (& How To) Be On Twitter

At a workshop, I asked the participants, "How many of you are on Twitter?" One teacher raised her hand. "Hmmm. Another question for you. How many of you think Twitter is stupid?" Every other hand went up quickly.

And I understood, because I too once thought that this world where Lady Gaga leads an army of followers while thousands of others spew whatever 140 character drivel flits through their brain seemed like the most idiotic concept of modern technology.

But then a teacher I respected mentioned he was on it. And then another. And then I finally caved and signed up with a great deal of sighing and hesitation. At first I wasn't sure how to navigate it and still felt unclear of its purpose. But within a few months I had gotten the swing. And now, I can't imagine my teaching life without it.

Now, at my fingertips are hundreds of other English teachers, writers, tech integrators, administrators, and professional organizations. I suddenly experience daily doses of interactive, high quality professional development. I have met the most incredible educators--from authors who write books on innovative research practices to some of my writer-heroes to other teachers doing their best to make their tiny corner of the teaching galaxy all it can be. The resources, humor, insight, lesson-sharing, and questions they are willing to share have helped me rethink my own practices this past year.

How do you get started? Once you've signed up on Twitter, you can find people to follow on sites like We Follow. You can also look up your favorite authors or specialists in your field. Search for professional organizations like NCTE or NCTM. As you start to select people you follow, you will see other suggestions over on the left hand side of your screen--these suggestions can be quite helpful.

After you begin following people, you will find that you want to do two things: 1. Share the ideas you are receiving and 2. Bookmark them for later. Both of these are easy tasks. For sharing (otherwise known as retweeting or RT), you just click the retweet button. If you want to save an idea or a resource (this is my most used Twitter feature), click on the star. It will save your favorite tweets so you can access them at a later time.

One of my favorite things to do for professional development is attend a "twitterchat." I spend every Monday night from 7-8 pm with #engchat, where English teachers get together and talk about current issues in our field.  And every week I walk in with a new resource or practice to try out in the classroom thanks to the innovative and dynamic teachers I have met there. There are hundreds of different twitterchats happening for everybody from Kindergarten teachers to brand new teachers to Social Studies teachers to Technology teachers. You simply have to find a platform to use (I use Tweetchat, but there are many other choices out there), type in the hashtag of the group you are participating in (for example, on Mondays, I type in #engchat) and then presto! You are part of a larger group experience where you will meet incredible and engaging educators.

In the teaching profession we too often teach behind closed doors. Too many schools have cut professional development funds, and those who haven't often do not give teachers choice about the PD they will receive. Twitter is a great way to reach out to your profession and take ownership of your own PD.

One thing to remember--everything you post on Twitter is public--it can be accessed by anybody at any time, so it is not the place to air your dirty laundry. I solely use Twitter as my professional "voice" and save my pictures and family for my invited friends on Facebook.

And finally, Twitter is only as good as the people you choose to follow.  If you follow the hordes of people allowing extraneous drivel to escape their parted lips, then you will be immediately discouraged. If you follow organizations who send out ten tweets every minute, you will be immediately overwhelmed. Seek out educators who inspire you, keep your interest, and offer you insight, and then you can do no wrong.

Good luck--I hope to see you there! (You can find me at @angiecmiller74)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Struggling With Technology: Some Answers

Recently, while teaching a "Technology for Dummies" class to 40 veteran teachers, I asked them why they were there. "What urged you to sign up for this workshop?" I inquired. We went around the room, and I heard over and over the same lament: I want to know how to use technology in my classroom, but  don't have the support in my school.

On my long drive home that afternoon, I reflected on this disconnect between teachers and technology--one that I have heard over and over from educators across the country. And I was curious about why teachers from every grade level, subject, and size of school blame their tech "guys."  It is very easy to blame them--I have done it myself. After all, they are the experts in the building, and we so often crave their expertise. And when we don't get it, we feel abandoned while these new worlds of apps and sites and clouds go whizzing by us.

I think however, there is a conundrum here. Technology teachers were trained to be teachers in their own classrooms. And that's what they do--they do the research they need to do, plan their lessons, and  go in and execute those lessons just like the rest of us, all while maintaining the technology that exists within the building.

They have not been trained to be PD providers or teacher leaders. They have been trained to be computer teachers. And they feel like classroom teachers expect them to be more than what they can be. The reality is though, that teachers need them to be different than they are. Because of this, our schools should be taking two imperative measures:

1. When hiring new technology "teachers," hire those who have been specifically trained through tech integration programs. We need technology experts who think like educators and can help provide onsite PD daily to their staff across curriculum and grade level.

2. Help current technology staff shift from the old paradigm of being a tech "teacher" to becoming a tech "integrator." Provide them with readings, workshops, and exposure to current pedagogy in their field. The old paradigm of having a computer teacher is outdated. But we have many talented people in the field who just need guidance and support to mold into the new paradigm of integration. This needs to be a priority.

In the meantime, teachers need to stop complaining about not having the support. We need to shift our own thinking.

1. Teachers need to play with technology and not be scared. No child has ever said that they won't use technology because they haven't received PD in it. They get on, they play, they make mistakes, they get frustrated, and then they figure out how and when they would use it. Be that person. Learn from your students. You do not have to have everything figured out in the beginning.

2. Classroom teachers need to become PD providers and teacher leaders in their own buildings. Don't wait for somebody else to do it. Once you know how to use an app or you find a transformative website, you must share it. Go across the hall. Bring it to a meeting. Send out an email to your colleagues. Model what you wish your tech "guy" would do. Because in this day and age, we are ALL "tech guys."

3. Start a "tech junkie" support group. Meet once a month and share your frustrations, epiphanies, struggles, and successes. This will increase collaboration among you and your colleagues, and suddenly you will see everybody in the building becoming a teacher leader in terms of technology. 

I too yearn for a technology expert who can come running to my side every time something new comes out or every time I have a question. But that will never be the case. And even when we all have technology integrationists in our schools, the world has become too vast for them to treat every teacher's classroom individually. So not only do we need to retrain our tech people, but we must retrain ourselves--take risks, experiment, and always share.

Emily Dickinson is Banned

(originally published on Boundless on October 3, 2012 during Banned Book Awareness Week)
Any search for Emily Dickinson is blocked on my school server.  Because her name has the word “dick” in it.  Yes. Seriously.  So that means Dick Cheney, Josh Reddick, Reddick, MA…they are all blocked too. We can still look up Massachussetts, cockroach, and the Constitution, but I have yet to bring that to anybody’s attention in case they decide to block all sites that may have unintended anatomical vernacular in them.
This may seem ridiculous to those who do not work in public schools, but unfortunately it is an all-too-common reality.  This summer at a nationwide conference, a teacher told me